Lorca, poet of Granada

Lorca, poet of Granada

by Lawrence Bohme

I have always thought that a poet is someone whose every word, written and spoken, is some form of poetry – for whom poetry is the everyday "common coin" of seeing things, an attitude from which versified poems sometimes arise. I personally only knew one such poet and he hardly ever wrote a word of anything, because he was only the butcher of a backward Andalucian town, the place where I lived, Montefrio.

My friend Manolo Avila (1912-1993) practiced the oldest form of poetry, song; but he didn't even make up the words of the songs. They were the traditional coplas of the vast flamenco repertory, folk poems in themselves which Manolo invested with his special flame of understanding and emotion, the spirit which the Andalucians, and particularly the man I am going to speak about, called duende. But when eccentric, feverish Manolo wasn't singing, his every spoken word had the effect of poetry, because it lifted all those who loved him above the smallness and meanness of the world, and made everything around us seem sharp and original – new, as it were.

One poet leads to another, as they say, and my quest for the unique Andalucian form of poetry began not here in the highlands of Granada Province, but in Mexico City, circa 1956. There, in a small but futuristic apartment of the Zona Rosa, my mother gave me an anthology entitled "The World's 100 Greatest Modern Poems", in which I made several discoveries which did much to shape my own idea of what poetry, and poets, should be. One was by Jacques Prevert, another by Dylan Thomas, and yet another, I think, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But the one I loved the most – partly because it came from Spain – was by Federico Garcia Lorca, "the poet of Granada". The translation was by an Australian and all in rhyme – the original is free verse – in the lilting manner of "I must go down to the sea again...", quite unlike Lorca's disembodied haiku style. The poem was the famous one which begins Verde que te quiero verde, and which I first read in Roy Campbell's rendition as: Green, green I want you green / Green the wind and green the boughs / The ship upon the ocean seen / the horse upon the hill... and I forget the rest.

A catchy bit of work, you might say – but the main image came through and I wanted to read the original, which I was soon given by the Mexican dilettante novelist who lived downstairs. My Spanish was good enough to understand most of the words, and the rest I savoured for their mysterious resonance. The poem simply set my imagination on fire, making me decide that Lorca was indeed one of those poets whose every utterance had to be poetry, and, also, that I would one day live in Andalucia.

Now of course the marvellous work has no mysteries for me other than those which are inherent to poetry itself, and with which it literally – or should I say poetically – bristles. Thinking that many English-speakers would get pleasure from it, and remembering the hopelessly British-sounding version in the anthology, I am going to translate (and comment) it directly, word for word.

The ambiguous title of the poem, Romance Sonámbulo, translates not very satisfyingly as "Somnambulistic Ballad". It comes from the collection called El Romancero Gitano, "The Gypsy Balladeer".

Lorca opens with the haunting refrain, painting in a few words the dream-like image of nature stirring all around:

Green, how I love you green
green wind, green branches
the boat on the sea
and the horse on the mountain.

We are immediately taken to the scene of the gypsy girl waiting for her lover, a smuggler, to return:

With darkness around her waist
she dreams on her balcony
green flesh, green hair
with eyes of cold silver.

Green, how I love you green
Under the gypsy moon
things are looking at her
and she cannot look at them.

To prepares us for the drama, Lorca uses a series of surrealistic images that suggest the mystery and wild strength of the dome of the night towering around the girl:

Green, how I love you green
Great stars of frost
come with the fish of darkness
which opens the path to the dawn.

The fig tree rubs against the wind
with the sandpaper of its branches
and the hill, like a stealthy cat,
bristles its sour cactus prickles.

But who is coming, and from where...?
She stays there, on her balcony,
green flesh, green hair,
dreaming of the bitter sea.

Now we seem to overhear the pathetic dialogue of the smuggler, mortally wounded by the soldiers, who has reached the house of his friend, where his strange request tells us that his life of adventure is over and he wishes to die in dignity:

Friend, I want to trade
my horse for your house,
my saddle for your mirror,
my knife for your blanket.

Friend, I come bleeding
from the mountains of Cabra.

The friend claims that this is impossible, because he is "no longer his own self" - in other words, because he too has been dispossessed of all he had. In a trance-like state, they climb together to the "high balconies", not of the house itself but, symbolically, of the moon and death. As they ascend, the light from "tiny tin lamps" - of the sort gypsy craftsmen make – flickers on the village houses, and "a thousand tambourines" – an instrument the gypsies play – "of glass" (perhaps symbolising the stars and the early morning frost) "wound the dawn"...

If I could, young fellow
this deal would be sealed.

But I am no longer myself
Nor is my house now my own.

Friend, I want to die
decently, in my bed.

One with a metal frame, if it could be,
with sheets of proper linen.

Can't you see the wound I bear
from chest to throat?

Three hundred dark roses
stain your white shirtfront.

Your blood has left its mark and smell
around your horseman's sash.

But I am no longer myself
Nor is my house now my own.

Let me go up, at least
Up to the high balconies
let me go up! let me,
up to the high balconies.

Balconies of the moon
where the water thunders.

The two friends climb
up to the high balconies.

Leaving a trail of blood.

Leaving a trail of tears.

Tiny tin lamps
trembled on the rooftops.

A thousand tambourines of glass
wounded the dawn.

Green, how I love you green,
green wind, green branches.

The two friends climbed on.

The long wind left
a strange taste in the mouth
of bile, mint and basil.

Friend, where is she, tell me?
Where is your bitter girl?
How often she awaited you,
fresh face, black hair,
on this green balcony!

The girl has learned of his death, and in despair thrown herself into the stone cistern of her house, while the police, notified of the smuggler's presence, have interrupted their drinking in the barracks house to come pounding on the door. The dome of the night seems to have closed in on the tragedy, and become "as intimate" as the square of a village. And the rest is poetry, sheer poetry:

On the surface of the cistern
swayed the gypsy girl.

Green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of cold silver.

An icicle of moonlight
holds her afloat above the water.

The night became as intimate
as a tiny plaza.

Drunken Civil Guardsmen
pounded on the door.

Green, how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The boat on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

Related Page

Federico Garcia Lorca - Poet and Playright (1898 - 1936)